Honorable Mention, Short Paper, H. Thomas Austern Memorial Writing Competition, 2011.
Obesity is one of the most contentious issues facing the United States today. Some researchers warn of an obesity "epidemic" that poses a grave threat to our nation's health, while others attack these claims as alarmist and misguided. This divide reinforces the political schism between advocates of government intervention and anti-regulatory groups. As a result, obesity science finds itself entangled in partisan battles that leave little room for compromise. This paper explores the potential for the political philosophy of soft paternalism to provide a regulatory framework that may appeal to both sides of the obesity reform debate. Soft paternalism draws upon social science research in order to develop policies that encourage better decision-making, while preserving individual choice. Applying this framework to the issue of obesity, I look at two areas of potential reform: 1) information-based policies such as nutritional label design, and 2) policies that affect default choices, such as portion size norms.
I find that while soft paternalism is an appealing framework that offers many promising reforms, it is not a panacea. Instead, I argue that these proposals should be considered on their own merit, not as a complete solution precluding other measures. In addition, in light of potential criticism concerning the stigmatizing effect of some obesity-related measures, I suggest that reforms based on soft paternalism can and should be tailored to promote more mindful eating habits. With these concerns in mind, I conclude that soft paternalism is a promising approach that warrants serious consideration by policymakers.